Our Problem: Illusion or Reality?

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From the series, Ten Turning Points That Make All the Difference

What’s our problem?

No, seriously. What’s wrong with us?

Maybe nothing’s wrong with us. Sure, it seems like something’s not right with humanity, but maybe it’s just an illusion. There are modern naturalists/materialists who say consciousness and free will are human illusions. They’re not the only ones who place common-sense human experience in doubt. “Christian Science” (which is neither) teaches that evil is unreal, and that our only real problem is believing otherwise. Death is a “mortal illusion.”

It seems to me that would be a hard belief to try to hold to. “Christian Science” is a small minority religion, for reasons that are plain to see. Few of us have even heard of Mary Baker Eddy, its founder.


Here’s another woman, though, whose name is not quite so obscure: ever heard of Oprah? Oprah Winfrey, I mean—that Oprah. (As if you needed me to add the last name.) She launched a spirituality seminar a couple of years ago that drew something like 2 million participants, in cooperation with a writer/teacher named Eckhart Tolle. Tolle teaches that “All problems are illusions of the mind,” and (p. 74 here)

Some spiritual teachings state that all pain is ultimately an illusion, and this is true. The question is: Is it true for you? Do you want to experience pain for the rest of your life and keep saying that it is an illusion? Does that free you from the pain? What we are concerned with here is how you can realize this truth—make it real in your own experience.

To live, to feel —
To feel, perchance not to dream — ay there’s the rub,
For in this unreal life what confusions may come…”

That’s not how Hamlet speaks it, but it fits. We live. We feel. If we are supposed to persuade ourselves it’s all a dream, well, that’s a hard thing to do. It seems a cruel thing, even, to call our pains and griefs unreal. How could anyone suggest such a thing? I think it’s because they’re trying to understand our problem, to grasp what’s really wrong with us, but they’re looking the wrong place for it.

Blaise Pascal (1623-1662) knew where to find the answer. He was also possibly the best at articulating the question.

Let us imagine a number of men in chains, and all condemned to death, where some are killed each day in the sight of the others, and those who remain see their own fate in that of their fellows, and wait their turn, looking at each other sorrowfully and without hope. It is an image of the condition of men. (Pensées 199)

The greatness of man is great in that he knows himself to be miserable. A tree does not know itself to be miserable. It is then being miserable to know oneself to be miserable; but it is also being great to know that one is miserable.  (Pensées 397)

And those who most despise men, and put them on a level with the brutes, yet wish to be admired and believed by men, and contradict themselves by their own feelings; their nature, which is stronger than all, convincing them of the greatness of man more forcibly than reason convinces them of their baseness.  (Pensées 404)

In these fragmentary “thoughts” (English for Pensées) Pascal puts his finger on the problem. We are great, yet we are miserable. We see a hopeless, sorrowful fate ahead, and we cannot shake off the sure knowledge that it is wrong to be in this condition.

I do not know of whom he was speaking in fragment 404, or what philosophical eddies were swirling about Europe in the 1600s that would have put men “on a level with the brutes.” Perhaps it was a recrudescence of Epicurean naturalism. In today’s world, though, a thought like that would surely refer to those who tell us that evolution explains us completely. We are no different from the lower animals except that we have climbed higher on the evolutionary ladder; but those who understand what it means that evolution is unguided and directionless know that “higher” means nothing. If there is no direction, then there is no higher or lower. (I spoke of this in a related sense last time.)

It becomes a particular puzzle why grief and pain and moral wrongs should vex us so much more than they do the animals. It almost tempts one to say, if this is what I get for being “higher,” then please, let me down from here!

Let us hear from Pascal once more:

The greatness of man.—The greatness of man is so evident, that it is even proved by his wretchedness. For what in animals is nature we call in man wretchedness; by which we recognise that, his nature being now like that of animals, he has fallen from a better nature which once was his.

For who is unhappy at not being a king, except a deposed king? Was Paulus Æmilius unhappy at being no longer consul? On the contrary, everybody thought him happy in having been consul, because the office could only be held for a time. But men thought Perseus so unhappy in being no longer king, because the condition of kingship implied his being always king, that they thought it strange that he endured life. Who is unhappy at having only one mouth? And who is not unhappy at having only one eye? Probably no man ever ventured to mourn at not having three eyes. But any one is inconsolable at having none. (Pensées 409)

Naive evolutionism says we are on the way up. Savvy evolutionism, Christian Science, and New Age Tolle-ism may have nothing else in common, but they agree in this: it’s a mistake to think there is any “up.” Pascal, by contrast, understood that we have been higher before than we are: that man “has fallen from a better nature which once was his.”

This comes straight out of Genesis 3, which will be the topic of my next article in this series. Few passages of literature have been subjected to such ridicule as the first few chapters of Genesis. This is unwarranted on many grounds, one of which Pascal has captured in his fragments 397 and 409. We know there’s something wrong. We know we were intended for something better. We reject the ridiculous lie that this is all illusion, a misunderstanding.

Some readers may find Genesis 3 unbelievable on account of its mythical feel: a talking serpent and a deathly fruit. We’ll come back to that in a while. In fact I haven’t even begun to discuss what that passage has to offer by way of explaining our problem. I can’t ask you to accept that explanation when I haven’t even set it forth for you; but what I do ask of you is to consider how unreal, how strange, how mythical are the New Age or naturalistic evolutionary explanations of our condition:

For in this unreal life what confusion may come…”

There are many confusions in this life, but let’s not be fooled about this one: we know we were meant for better than this. Evolution knows nothing of any “better” for humans; and calling it illusion is no way to explain it either.

I’m halfway through discussing this crucial turning point, and I haven’t even stated what it is yet. While you wait for the next half, I urge you not to close your mind. You may discover that Genesis 3 explains humankind—including yourself—better than you ever dreamed. There’s more coming tomorrow.

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2 Responses to “ Our Problem: Illusion or Reality? ”

  1. And, don’t forget, Pascal was a mathematician and physicist who made profound contributions to these fields. Binomial theorem and probabilities, anyone? Hydrostatics and hydrodynamics… with the invention of the syringe and hydraulic press, anyone?

    Imagine that: faith AND reason working in brilliant harmony. Yes, indeed, philosophical naturalism and atheism are the repugnant anti-human refuges of weak, self-serving minds.

    Here’s another excerpt from the Pensées, Chapter 10: What a chimera, then, is man! What a novelty! What a monster! What a chaos! What a subject of contradiction! What a prodigy! Judge of all things, feeble worm of the earth, depository of truth, sink of uncertainty and error, the glory and shame of the universe!

    And consider this:

    “My hands, my feet, my poor little brain, my eyes, my ears, all matter more than the whole sweep of these constellations! … God Himself, the God to Whom this whole universe-specked display is as nothing, God Himself had hands like mine and feet like mine, and eyes, and brain, and ears! … Without Christ we would be little more than bacteria breeding on a pebble in space, or glints of ideas in a whirling void of abstractions, Because of Him, I can stand there out under this cold immensity and know that my infinitesimal pulse-beats and my acts and thoughts are of more importance than this whole show of a universe. Only for Him, I would be crushed beneath the weight of all these worlds. Only for Him I would tumble dazed into the gasping chasms of space and time. Only for Him, I would be confounded before the awful fertility and intricacy for all life. Only for Him, I would be the merest of animalcules crawling on the merest of motes in a frigid Infinity… but behold, behold! God wept and laughed and dined and wined and suffered and died even as you and I. Blah!—for the immensity of space! Blah!—for those who would have me a microcosm in the meaningless tangle of an endless evolution! I’m no microcosm. I, too, am a Son of God!”
    [Myles Connolly, Mr. Blue, (New York: Doubleday, Image Books, 1954), pp. 40-41]

    BTW, William Vallincella has an interesting take on this topic as well: http://maverickphilosopher.typepad.com/maverick_philosopher/kierkegaard/.